Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur

November 16, 2001

We got a 60-page booklet in the mail today from the Mall at Short Hills (commonly referred to as “The Short Hills Mall” by plebeians such as me). In essence, it is a series of ads for the various top-drawer stores at the mall, such as Gucci, A|X Armani Exchange, Sunglass Hut, and others whose names alone sound so expensive that I’ve never bothered to determine what, exactly, they sell. The ads all have the same style and come from a fairly small universe of expensive, elegant-looking locations with the same models appearing in multiple places, so I think the ads were done specifically for the mall.

It’s strange. Looking through the booklet, I don’t find myself wanting to shop at Short Hills any more than usual (not much), but I can’t help but respect the effort that went into making it. I don’t have much sense of design or fashion (as my web site can attest), but I’m impressed by the photography, the color, the quality of the printing, even while I’m amused by the copy or the odd juxtapositions. The page for Mrs Fields has a bunch of their cookies carefully placed on gold-edged china plates with a crystal decanter of wine in the background.

This one, at least, is paperback. The last time the Mall at Short Hills sent around an ad booklet, it was hardcover. I don’t even want to think about how much that cost. #

Computer security: still lousy

In the most recent Crypto-Gram, Bruce Schneier explains why trying to hide vulnerabilities in software is a poor strategy, the tradeoffs of a fully isolated network (more secure, less useful), and Microsoft’s traditional strategy of claiming each new version of Windows is more secure than the previous one, right before people find dozens or hundreds of obvious flaws.

Mr Schneier also notes a recent unicode-related security problem, where people can enter bad input and the software doesn’t detect it because it’s encoded in a way the programmers didn’t anticipate. I originally thought he meant there were problems endemic to unicode itself, but this looks to be merely bad programming caused by people not fully thinking through new features. (Hint for budding programmers: decode text before checking for forbidden sequences.) #

Content vs. connectivity

The most recent JOHO mentions an article arguing that the telephone companies are trying to kill independent DSL providers by being uncooperative towards companies which are simultaneously their customers and their competitors.

This is understandable, as well as something that shouldn’t be allowed to continue. Everyone is obsessed about branding these days, so the phone companies don’t want to end up the providers of commodity utilities. (Quick! Can you name your water company?) That means they have to provide services in addition to simply managing the wires that run up to your house. Unfortunately (for them), other companies can also provide these services, and the law requires them to allow these companies access to the physical wires. Thus, the utility part of the company (the part that manages the wires) is cooperating with other companies that compete with the service part of the company (which offers DSL and voicemail and other features).

To put it another way, the problem is that the connectivity providers have a conflict of interest: if they also provide services, then they have a vested interest in making it difficult for their users to use services offered by competitors. Phone companies, for example, are concerned that people with high-speed internet access will use internet telephony rather than their own voice services. AOL would rather you visit its own private network offerings (where it can charge the content providers) or, if you must make use of the internet, to stick to sites within the AOL Time Warner empire.

The ultimate truth is that telephony and television are subsets of connectivity. Anything that can be done with television or a phone can be done with the internet, but much more can be done with the internet that cannot be done with phones or TV. The goal I would shoot for is to get everyone a static IP address and a guaranteed amount of bandwidth (in both directions). Things like phone service, television, web surfing, e-mail, and so forth can all be handled by a single connection. If people want to run their own web or mail server, that’s fine. If people prefer an account on a third-party server (analogous to today’s ISPs), that’s fine too. Note that things like e-mail and usenet access are not bundled with the internet connectivity; this will actually make things simpler in the long run. Really. #

Weblogs: What are they?

Some of the big names in weblogs have been having an argument or something about the nature of weblogs. (I’m still not entirely happy with the term “weblog”. About all it has going for it is that it’s better than “blog”, which just sounds stupid to me.) The primary question seems to be: What is a weblog? Is it something new? Is it similar to other things?

Chris “RageBoy” Locke sidesteps the question somewhat to look at the connections between the weblogs, the way thoughts and ideas are reflected back and forth between sites, picking up new spins and concepts.

At least, I think that’s what he’s doing. These guys can be a bit obscure at times.

As I see it, the key difference between a weblog and other types of web sites is history. Your standard web site (such as the ZedneWeb Library) exists only in the present. It may change over time through addition or subtraction, but the contents are presented in terms of what exists now. Weblogs, in contrast, are about how things were at the time. Each entry is associated with a specific time and may refer to earlier entries (of the same or different weblogs), and may be referred to by later entries (of the same or different weblogs).

That’s true also of usenet postings, but the mechanics and organization are different. Postings are organized by author, rather than topic, and tend to live longer.

In that spirit, when I find an interesting article on another weblog, I try to link back to the entry where I found it, rather than the front page. That way, my readers can follow the thread backwards and see another angle on the subject. (via Doc Searls) #

In praise of vague characterization

James Wagner Au comments on the XBox, describing why he thinks it will fail (no compelling games). He does concede that Bungie’s Halo looks interesting, but he complains that the hero is “a nameless ultracommando in a bulky power suit”, adding: “Underdeveloped protagonists are a recurring flaw in Bungie’s games”.

I can’t help but think he’s missing the point. Take Bungie’s first big hit, the Marathon trilogy, which has a story so compelling that people still discuss it today. There the protagonist is similarly unnamed and uncharacterized (aside from hints about cyborgs made from deceased soldiers). Some might call this a flaw, but consider that players see things through the protagonist’s eyes (the “first-person” perspective). By keeping the character vague, Bungie allows anyone to identify themselves as the protagonist. You aren’t controlling the Mjollnir IV cyborg, you are the cyborg. If the protagonist is suddenly revealed to be an opera lover, then there’s a conflict between the player and the character (except for those players that love opera).

Consider the “hand” pointer on the Macintosh (used for grabbing things with the mouse). When it was originally introduced, it was a simple white outline of a hand. Nowadays, however, it contains some stripes and a slightly baggier look that makes it resemble a white glove. Why do this? Because non-white people use computers, and this makes it easier for them to associate the hand pointer on-screen with their own hands. (Granted, it’s not much help if they’re left handed, but give it time.) #